Imagine not being able to brush your teeth, button your shirt or even lift a book to read. For the millions suffering the effects of Parkinson’s disease, these simple tasks can be an arduous endeavour. Tremor, one of the most disabling symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, significantly affects the lives of patients. But if researchers involved in a Western-led effort are successful, those symptoms will soon be a thing of the past.
“It’s absolutely critical. It’s the difference between allowing people to be independent or having to rely on someone for simple things like buttoning a shirt,” Engineering professor Ana Luisa Trejos explained. “What we’re hoping is not only the overall quality of life will improve, but they will gain independence and improve how they feel about themselves.”
Trejos, Health Sciences professor Jayne Garland, along with Evan Friedman of Intronix Technologies, have received a Collaborative Health Research Projects grant to look into creating a wearable device that assists with the suppression of tremor in Parkinson’s patients.
Their project, Mechatronic Device for Multimodal Suppression of Parkinsonian Tremor, recently received $414,492 (plus $8,446 for equipment) over three-year term from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) partnered grant.
Traditional methods of dealing with tremor are often ineffective – surgery is highly invasive and risky. A new approach includes using devices that involve either mechanical suppression via actuators, such as motors that apply opposing forces to the tremor, or electrical suppression, which uses a modulated electrical signal to stimulate the muscles involved in generating tremor.
Unfortunately, Trejos explained, the current mechanical devices are too heavy and cumbersome for daily use and none are currently commercially available. As well, the electrical suppression method can cause varying levels of pain that is not able to be tolerate by most patients.
“The idea is to try and combine both so we are minimizing how much stimulation it needs, so it doesn’t hurt,” Trejos said. “What we hope to find is it will stop the tremors and compensate better than the two on their own. They will be working together and will also be more comfortable and lighter.
“That is the key of the research – develop a model of how the muscle reacts to the two different systems acting together. The control system will then adapt the motion of the motors and timing of the stimulation so each can compensate for tremor.”
Building off her previous work, Trejos now looks to develop a device that is more compact, lighter and with extended battery life. She and her team will design smart control systems that adapt to the patient’s ability to tolerate electrical stimulation.
“Some people will have resting tremor, when body is still, but once they start to move there is no tremor,” she noted, adding a lot of Parkinson’s patients also have postural tremor, which is problematic if they are trying to hold a glass, for example. “So the mechanism of the tremor changes from when its resting to when it postural. That’s one of the things we need learn more about.”
This new technology will be beneficial to patients disabled by tremor of the wrist and fingers. It is expected to significantly improve their ability to perform activities of daily living.
Co-investigators on the project include Mary Jenkins (Neurology), Michael Naish (Engineering) and Aaron Price (Engineering)
Trejos also recently earned the Petro Canada Young Innovator Award from Western for her continued research in the design, integration and evaluation of mechatronic devices and systems for surgery, therapy and rehabilitation. The award is offered to full-time faculty members from any discipline within eight years of their initial faculty appointment whose work has the potential to be of significance to society.